Monday, December 26, 2011

“Do we care about each other?”

Pink Floyd’s album Animals asks us to consider the consequences of our answer, claiming that it is empathy above all else, that differentiates human behavior from the behavior of other animals. Without empathy, we behave no differently than pigs, dogs, or sheep, vacuously zig zagging through life, hoarding, obeying, or being led astray.

Animals are actually capable of empathy, but their caring is limited by their lack of language and culture. When society accepts greed as a desirable principle, our caring becomes limited by a lack of opportunity to express it. We start to believe in “market solutions” more than in our ability to productively communicate, resulting in the fictions that someone must “hit bottom” in order to choose to quit an addiction, that economic profit is the driving motivation behind scientific progress, and that the poor are somehow responsible for the economic difficulties they face.

With the loss of empathy, we also lose our ability to openly communicate the struggles we face. As a species, we backslide.

“If you didn’t care / what happens to me,and I didn’t care / for you,we would zig zag our way, through the boredom and pain,occasionally glancing up through the rain...And watching / for pigs on the wing”

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Michael Albert and Alan Maas debate the relevance Marxism

Okay, went through the Maas-Albert debate on Marxism. Tried to pick out some highlights below. To summarize, Albert argues against democratic centralism claiming that it is one sign of what he calls "coordinatorism" and was one of the factors that enabled Stalin to come to power.

I'm not sure if this necessarily connects to the Maas-Albert debate, but while I was going through that, I also did some thinking about the role of radical-left groups within Occupy. I see Occupy as a broad coalition, not just of radical groups, but of everyone who recognizes the current two-party political system is worthless. Occupy is invaluable in that it provides a rational structure, with which people can identify and attach their politics to, but as I see it, being a coalition limits what kind of artistic statements Occupy can make.

A coalition is based on a common subset of rational principles, with which all members can agree. Artistic statements are often subjective, and so could easily fall outside that subset. For instance, I would feel out-of-place proposing in the GA, "Occupy needs to make a short narrative film that illustrates the inherent savagery within capitalism." The advantage that ideological groups have is that ideological groups are based on a complete framework of rational principles, out of which subjective, artistic appeals can be created.

So that's how I see the role of radical groups within the Occupy movement: ideological groups should create appeals to people on the artistic, intuitive-ideological level.

Anyway, back to the debate, Albert's accusation "Marxism leads to coordinatorism" is perhaps one-sided in that coordinatorism is just one possible outcome of a successful Marxist-Leninist revolution, and hopefully not the odds-on outcome. I have to agree with Albert that the possibility is there.

Albert explains "coordinatorism"

I say that class exists due to ownership, yes, but also due to social relations of the division of labor. Some [labor] have positions that empower, others have positions that deaden. This differential can lead to class division. To pay attention to those who exist between labor and capital by saying they have some capitalistic attributes and some workeristic attributes, whatever combination and variation may be discussed, is precisely still seeing everything in terms of these two categories and not introducing a third.

The situation of those who monopolize empowering work and the levers of daily economic decision making power isn't just confused. This group between labor and capital isn't just the bottom of capitalists above merging into the top of workers below. It has its own position, its own definition, and as a result its own views and interests. Calling it the petty bourgeoisie is again just working in terms of the old ownership viewpoint...and paying attention to the wrong sector of people...they own a little but not a lot of capital. The point is to see that something other than ownership differences can be the source of class division and even class rule.

When you say that Marx insightfully noted that capitalists had to elevate a sector to a considerable degree of power, I say, yes, Marx himself understood a whole lot of things, and if this is one, that's good. But the richer understanding isn't embedded in the system that is called Marxism. If people who read a useful take on such matters from Marx or whoever else come to realize that it is possible for the situation in workplaces to demarcate a new class due to the distribution of empowering and disempowering tasks such that some people monopolize the former and the rest endure the latter, that'll be excellent.

Instead, Albert argues for councils:

There are some Marxists, they have been called council communists [a position associated with libertarian socialism], who tried to describe a truly socialist -- in the positive sense -- vision. I feel they just didn't get very far, though others might feel that is too dismissive. But they are the exception that proves the rule, in my view. They ought to be extolled as the best Marxism has had to offer. Instead, they are literally ignored, to my knowledge, by large Marxist parties the world round.

Maas explains how the early soviets functioned:

The soviets first appeared as workplace committees organized for a wave of battles over economic issues. But the need to respond to wider political questions--most obviously, the use of massive repression by the Tsar--led the councils to make links locally and then regionally. As Lenin described it, "Soviets of Workers Deputies are organs of direct mass struggle. They originated as organs of the strike struggle. By force of circumstance, they very quickly became the organs of general revolutionary struggle against the government. The course of events and the transition from a strike to an uprising irresistibly transformed them into organs of an uprising."

Here was the form, Lenin and the other revolutionary socialists of Russia recognized, through which workers could exercise power democratically. There was a direct connection between the economic power of workers and a new political system based on representation from the factory floor. The level of grassroots participation was obvious from the ratio of delegates to those they represented: one delegate for every 500 workers. And like the Paris Commune, delegates were immediately recallable and paid no more than an average workers’ wage.

Much of the argument centers around the term "state capitalism." Maas believes the term applies to the Soviet economy under Stalin, and also certain aspects of Western capitalist economies. Albert says that it is not useful to call the Soviet, Cuban, and Chinese economies "state capitalist" economies when there are no private owners of capital. Maas replies:

"Once you strip away the rhetoric, you’re left with the picture of a society dominated by a minority ruling class that controls the means of production--not through private ownership, but through the apparatus of the state. This ruling class, like its counterparts in Western-style capitalism, organizes production to meet the demands of competition--not the economic competition of individual capitals fighting to dominate the market, but the military competition of state capitals fighting for political survival. As under capitalism in the West, the primary goal is not the accumulation of private wealth (though this is certainly a goal!), but the accumulation of greater and greater means of production--in Stalinist Russia’s case, machinery and factories that could be devoted to military production.

Albert says it's more important to focus on how these countries arrived at this end picture:

You say "If Albert thinks a debate with me and the ISO about the relevance of Marxism is useful, then he should address himself to our Marxism--not the fake Marxism of bureaucrats and dictators that we have always rejected and opposed." I think I am speaking to the core views of Marxism, period. I think our disagreements indicate that. You wouldn't let an advocate of capitalism say don't talk to me about depressions, about starvation, about wars and colonization -- that's just bad capitalism, I am for good capitalism... Does the ISO utilize democratic centralism? If not, okay, I will take a closer look. But if so, that would be a big indicator for me...consistent, in my view, with coordinator dominance. But it could be that in addition the ISO has beliefs in many domains I would like and support, I don't know.

Maas and Albert also go back and forth about coordinatorism, and whether it does in fact represent a separate possibility from the rule of capital.

Albert's association of "coordinatorism" with Marxism comes out of left field. Does Albert really believe that the economic aims of accountants, lawyers and mid-level corporate executives were best expressed by Karl Marx?

...His argument, as I understand it, is that the societies which have called themselves socialist and been ruled over by people who claim to be Marxist--countries like the former USSR, China, Cuba, North Korea, etc.--should be understood as "coordinatorist."

Here is his description of "this new economy": "It has public or state ownership of productive assets and corporate divisions of labor. It remunerates power and/or output. It utilizes central planning and/or markets for allocation. It is typically called by its advocates market socialism or centrally planned socialism...It has been adopted by every Marxist party that has ever redefined a society's economic relations."

This is by and large an accurate description of the countries listed above, past and present. But the question is whether they were socialist--and whether the "Marxist parties" that redefined their economic relations had anything to do with Marxism.

My organization, the International Socialist Organization, is part of a tradition that has always rejected the idea that these top-down regimes represent Marxism. Our case is simple--that the starting principle of Marxism was summed up in a sentence written by Marx for the rules of the First International: "The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves." It doesn't matter what the rulers of the ex-USSR and the other so-called "socialist" countries called themselves--any more than it matters for our understanding of democracy that Bill Clinton calls himself a Democrat. The question is whether workers control society. In the USSR and the other bastions of "Marxism," the experience of workers wasn't one of control and freedom, but of exploitation, oppression and alienation from all levers of social and political control.

Albert claims that Marxist-Leninist theory has tendency towards concentrating power in the hands of "coordinators" even though that is not at all the intention. Specifically, they disagree about what happened in the early Soviet Union. Albert contends that democratic centralism was one factor that allowed "coordinators" such as Stalin come to power:

The problem isn't bad people. Yes, Stalin was no nice guy. But the problem was the institutions which select and elevate a thug like Stalin. The problem with Marxism Leninism isn't that everybody in those parties wants to trample workers on the road to ruling them. The problem is that those parties, and their core concepts, however well meaning many or even for most adherents may be, lead to that outcome. That's what I said before, and I say it here again. None of us, no one, is immune to the pressures of our circumstances, and on average concepts and organizational choices and strategies that have a built-in logic elevating coordinators are overwhelmingly likely to do just that: elevate coordinators.

Become a cop, even with the best motives the odds are you aren't going to serve the people, all the people, and some who take this route will become grotesque. Become a lawyer, even with the best motives the odds are that you aren't going to be a paragon of justice but an elitist coordinatorist person. Become a Leninist, with the very best of motives -- the very very best -- and the odds are you aren't going to make a revolution in our modern world, I think (for want of diverse focus and especially, ironically, true working class appeal), but if you do, the odds are your achievement will, even against your hopes, elevate coordinators to economic rule, not workers.

Maas's response to Albert's attacks:

Ultimately, Michael believes that the coordinator class can "wage a class war against capital," enlisting the support of workers to overthrow the system, but then "imposing their rule in the process and...dominating in the new society." We’ll leave aside for the moment whether this has ever happened. The question that I’d ask is: Why? Why go to the trouble of a revolution, when the instinct of members of the middle class--bred by their experience as managers who "command in the name of capital" and as a product of their whole world view--is to try to work their way up the ladder?

It’s one thing to discuss the role of the middle class or coordinator class under capitalism. But when you start imagining this class taking action to establish itself as the rulers over a new society, Michael’s case stops making sense, in my opinion. In fact, the only way it does make sense is to stop thinking of coordinators as doctors and lawyers and managers--that is, everyone that we’ve been talking about in the analysis of the coordinator class under capitalism--and understand them as a stalking horse for an argument against Marxism.


This is why--or at least the first few reasons why--the ISO has made the case for identifying the ex-USSR and its imitators in China, Cuba, etc., as "state capitalist" societies. Michael objects that that this argument is "far less useful than realizing that it must be, instead, if not capitalism, and if not an economy in which workers self manage--then something else." He quotes me comparing different aspects of the system in the ex-USSR and the West, but dismisses my case, because I apparently didn’t explain "the absence of that which for Marxists is usually the first thing mentioned about capitalism, that capitalists own the means of production."


if Michael is right, and Marxism’s "rhetorical entreaties" have, for the past 150 years, been a smokescreen for core principles that are fundamentally elitist, then an awful lot of people have been duped...

I’m open to a debate about what these leading Marxists have said and happy to point out--as I have at various points in this exchange--where I believe they were wrong. But in Michael’s "original sin" version of Marxism, they can’t possibly be right about their vision of a future socialist society ruled by the working-class majority. Whatever insights Marxists have had about capitalist society, as far as the future is concerned, there’s only rhetoric or principles that embody the interests of a middle class elite.

I don’t buy it. To me, there is neither an "elitist core" nor "fine-sounding rhetoric" in genuine Marxism--only a 150-year-old tradition that, though much developed over the years, can still be reduced to its commitment to a future society in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

The full debate is available both through Albert's site:

and through

Going through the book Ben lent on Marxism and religion "The Meek and the Militant" by Paul Siegel, I found one a description of underlying principles of Marxism out of which I think the tendency towards coordinatorism might develop. Siegel quotes George Novack, "The Marxist theory of knowledge accepted...the empirical contention that all the contents of knowledge are derived from sense experience." Jung claims that sense experience is only half of the equation, and that intuition is an equally valid process. Intuition gives us access to the unconscious contents of the mind, which are either innate contents or compensatory contents that form when the psyche becomes too one-sided. Intuition "presents itself whole and complete, without our being able to explain or discover how this content came into existence." A good example of intuition involving innate content would be people's fear of spiders and snakes. For compensatory content, intuition re-centers the psyche. An example of compensatory content is illustrated through Jung's claim "too much civilization makes the animal in us sick," so the compensatory content would be that moment of epiphany or realization of the need for balance in life.

I came across a good description of Jung's theory of the innate content of the mind recently:

"The collective unconscious, which forms the deepest stratum of each human life, also forms a foundation common to all mankind. It is said that the entire spiritual heritage of man, gathered over two million years, flows within this deepest stratum. One of Jung's followers, C. S. Hall, analyzed man's fear of snakes and darkness, and concluded that such fears could not be fully explained by the experiences of a single lifetime. Personal experiences only seem to strengthen and reaffirm the inborn fear. We have inherited a fear of snakes and darkness from ancestors back in the unknown past. This is, then, a hereditary fear, according to Hall, which proves that ancestral experience is an engrained memory living in the deepest stratum of human life."

Following this line of thinking, Marxist theory has a tendency to alienate people who favor the intuitive, compensatory way of thinking, in favor of those who insist the content of knowledge comes through sense experience. The intuitive, compensatory thinkers, being a minority, end up being out-voted under democratic-centralism. As their way of thinking disagrees with a basic assumption of Marxism, they feel ill-equipped to make their voices heard.

Monday, November 21, 2011

On Carl Jung and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Our existence in society can be visualized as the middle ground between the opposing poles of existence as animal and existence through language.

Existence as animal ---------------> Existence in society <------------------ Existence through language

Historical materialism sees only one side of this formulation. It sees existence in society as necessarily developing out of how we produce enough subsistence to meet our animal needs.

Existence as animal ---------------> Existence through language ---------------> Existence in society

Why do I believe that our existence through language is fundamentally different from our needs for food, water, and shelter? Is not the development of language similar to, say, the evolutionary development of a tiger's sharp claws or a peacock's tail, in that they developed to enable the species to more effectively procure food or attract mates?

Yes, it is true we could view life through these lenses, seeing only the material causes for every event. But this view closes the door on so much! Unlike sharp claws or fancy tail feathers, language brought about the development of consciousness, and,in doing so, opened up a whole new way of looking at the world. Consciousness gives us the ability to “bind time,” as Korzybski put it, meaning that we can exist apart from the material world by reminiscing about past memories or planning future triumphs.

Rather than seeing history only as class struggle, history can also be seen as an attempt to unify the two opposing poles of our existence as animal and our existence as “time binders” through language.

Existence as animal, described by natural science ---------------> Existence in society <------------------ Existence as time binders through language, expressed by religious experience

If we are ever able to bring these two poles together, maybe we will be at what De Chardin calls the "sense of Earth."

De Charin wrote about: "The sense of Earth is the irresistible pressure which will come at the right moment to unite them (humankind) in a common passion." "Humanity. . . is building its composite brain beneath our eyes." -

What interests me is the thought that Jung's archetypes are our clues for how to accomplish what De Chardin was talking about.

For Jung, archetypes are genetic echoes of how consciousness arose within early humans. These memories exist a priori in the structure of the human brain, waiting to be re-activated by specific social experiences.

What had to happen for consciousness to develop in early humans? I believe the development was gradual, with the archetypes signifying big events—the love of a mother, sharing in the knowledge of an elder, the fear of the unknown, the first conscious awareness of sexual attraction—I feel like these concepts existed as unconscious archetypes long before the creation of language.

Just as archetypes existed before we had words for them, perhaps archetypes can also be found on a social level.

Chardin wrote, "It is not our heads or our bodies which we must bring together, but our hearts." In looking to manufacture consciousness through artificial intelligence, we are getting too far ahead of ourselves. First we need to see how far human consciousness can reach, by creating a unity between our language-based and needs-based existences.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

movie review of Pink Floyd - The Wall

In spite of Pink Floyd's reputation, don't come into this movie looking for escape. While some of the film's animation can not be beat, newer movies with lots of random “I know that actor/actress” associations are better for distracting the mind.

The Wall is a journey into the darker sides of society. It shows us Pink, a rock-star who is disillusioned with everything our society has to offer and represses all desire for human connection. The cycle of disillusionment, alienation, and oppression unfolds.

The movie begins by contrasting an audience coming to see Pink in concert with images of soldiers in WWI. This could be the first anti-movie movie. Mass media brainwashes into conformity as much as the army indoctrinates soldiers.

The movie then takes us through the chronology of Pink's life. The death of his father in battle leaves a big gap in his family life and also a distrust of government, which he represses in order to fit in with other boys his age.

In one scene, a young Pink finds his daddy's military uniform one day, tries it on, and salutes his image in the mirror, as the soundtrack plays When the Tigers Broke Free:

It was just before dawn
One miserable morning in black 'forty four.
When the forward commander
Was told to sit tight
When he asked that his men be withdrawn.
And the Anzio bridgehead
Was held for the price
Of a few hundred ordinary lives.

They were all left behind,
Most of them dead,
The rest of them dying.
And that's how the High Command
Took my daddy from me.

Next comes education. A particularly harsh schoolmaster repeatedly belittles Pink in front of the class, which participates in his ridicule out of their fear of the master's paddle. Of course, this experience too becomes just another brick in Pink's wall.

The final step is marriage. While Pink becomes a successful musician, he is often inattentive to his wife, more interested in sitting at the piano keyboard than attending social functions, and looking over her at the TV as she tries to be romantic in bed. When she is inevitably driven away, and no longer answers his phone calls, Pink's wall is complete.

We begin to see the dark side of celebrity. Pink willingly participates in the music concerts, even though he feels the music industry is just another authoritarian social institution, offering no authentic human connection. In “One of My Turns,” his disillusionment boils over when a groupie follows him to his hotel room.

Day after day
Love turns gray
Like the skin on a dying man
Night after night
We pretend it's all right
But I have grown older
And you have grown colder
And nothing is very much fun, anymore
Run to the bedroom
In the suitcase on the left
You'll find my favorite axe
Don't look so frightened
This is just a passing phase
One of my bad days
Would you like to watch TV?
Or get between the sheets?

Or contemplate the silent freeway; would you like something to eat?
Would you like to learn to fly?
Would you like to see me try?

Would you like to call the cops?
Do you think it's time I stopped?

Why are you running away?

Ironically, the only place Pink finds hope for the possibility of authentic connection is TV, but he knows that's not real.

The song “Nobody Home” sums up his feeling,

I got elastic bands keepin my shoes on.
Got those swollen hand blues.
I got thirteen channels of shit on the T.V. to choose from.
I've got electric light.
And I got second sight.
Got amazing powers of observation.
And that is how I know
When I try to get through
On the telephone to you
There'll be nobody home.

I've got wild staring eyes.
And I've got a strong urge to fly.
But I've got nowhere to fly to.
Ooooh, Babe.

When I pick up the phone...
There's still nobody home.

Pink's repression has cut him off from all authentic human connection. In what could be argued is the climax of the movie, Pink takes on the identity of the leader of a Neo-political movement and moves his adoring fans to adopt dehumanizing attitudes. Director Alan Parker portrays has the crowd transition into a synchronized march, and brilliantly superimposes faceless masks over every member of the audience, illustrating the egoless conformity that crowd behavior brings out in us.

At some point in the future, Pink at last yells “STOP!” and takes time to reflect on what he has become.

He then heroically looks into himself, as depicted in “The Trial”. The site says it well,

In many ways, “the Trial" epitomizes all that is the Wall, combining the album's high theatrics, unflinching cynicism, dark humor, tongue-in-cheek irony, deep emotion, and (paradoxically) both unwavering nihilism and steadfast optimism. The song is a seeming contradiction, offering a dichotomous look at the light and dark, good and ill, of Pink's life from a number of different perspectives, all of which take place within the mind of one person.

Roger Waters explains, “the judge is part of him just as much as all the other characters and things he remembers. They're all in his mind, they're all memories.” Although bizarre at first glance, the“The Trial” is a fitting ending to the multiple themes the film touches on.

The Wall, both the album and the movie, is humongous in scope. It's about what concentrations of power and authoritarian social structures do to our souls. For anyone looking to face these deep issues head-on, The Wall brings offers ample opportunity for reflection.

Monday, September 19, 2011

'Non-cognitive' Skills and the American Bias Towards Rules

Recently the term "noncognitive skills" has caught on in business and education circles. Just google 'noncognitive' to see that many academically published research articles use "noncognitive" as an umbrella term for anything which cannot be measured by a written test, usually things like communication, kindness, social intelligence, perseverance, and other 'intangible' traits.

But 'non-cognitive' is really quite a bizarre term to use! All of these skills have to be learned somehow, and so why is the term 'noncognitive' being used? 'Cognitive' comes from the Latin 'cognoscere' 'with knowledge.' 'Non-rational', or 'not based on rules' is a much better description of these skills.

The reason 'noncognitive' has stuck is that academics in America have a huge bias towards rules. We take it as a given that a technical solution must exist to every problem. The idea that these skills could be 'non-rational' or 'not based on rules' is highly unappealing to us, so we prefer the ambiguous 'non-cognitive' label.

This is a mistake. It is interesting to note that, despite its abundant use in university-level research, there is no wikipedia page on "noncognitive skills." A google search for "non-cognitive skills" returns 162,000 results, while a search for "non-rational skills", the correct phrase, returns just 277 results!

Carl Jung wrote in the just recently published Red Book, "Scholarliness alone is not enough, there is a knowledge of the heart that gives deeper insight." Knowledge/cognition goes deeper than scholarliness or rationality. We must look beyond institutional, formalized knowledge, and into the knowledge of compassion in our hearts if we wish to move society forward.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

On capitalism and sociocultural transition

When I was growing up I was told that capitalism is great because it “allows you to be anything you want to be!” By “anything you want to be”, they really meant sit at a desk all day doing what a person in the office above you tells you to. “But you can be at whatever desk you want, if you just go for your dreams!” Uhhh, yeah. Thanks, I guess.

So what to make of capitalism? Are we to join Michael Moore in mock outrage at it? Or what about those rational voices claiming that better alternatives are possible? What if they are right, and the rest of us are missing out on a whole different quality of life?

Are we not like the tribe of Israel, demanding to be ruled by a king? The prophets cry to us there is a better way, but we don't even understand what they are saying. We know only the primal thrill of the vicarious experience of power. Donald Trump is our generation's King Saul.

So why not join the radical left and anarchists? The problem is that progress is slow.

Capitalism itself is a form of progress over the monarchy of King Saul. This can be a disheartening thought for an idealist. There is no shortcut. Utopia can only come about one mind at a time. Yet we are dealing with archetypal forces here. The unconscious desire for even a vicarious experience of power is embedded more deeply than we would like to admit.

Irrationality is the prima materia of culture. Irrational drives are the basis for music, dancing, games, art, story-telling, governments, economies, or any socio-cultural institution.

Capitalism taken to the free-market extreme is "reason turned against itself"--a system that assumes the innate rationality of our behavior, but yet exists only because of our irrational desire to experience power over our neighbor, if only vicariously. We want to see our neighbors struggle and fail, so we can say “Ha! You're no Donald Trump! I told you you'd never make it.” Ridicule is an easier, more instinctive pleasure than friendship. That's why the Israelites served a King, and our age serves capitalism.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Repression of our Inner Personalities

Back to what is apparently my favorite Erich Fromm quote:
“In making the individual feel worthless and insignificant as far as his own merits are concerned, in making him feel like a powerless tool in the hands of God, [Luther] deprived man of the self-confidence and of the feeling of human dignity which is the premise for any firm stand against [oppressive] secular authorities... Once the individual had lost his sense of pride and dignity, he was psychologically prepared to lose the feeling which had been characteristic of the medieval thinking, namely, that man, his spiritual salvation, and his spiritual aims were the purpose of life; he was prepared to accept a role in which his life became a means to purposes outside of himself, those of economic productivity and accumulation of capital. Luther’s views on economic problems were typically medieval, still more so than Calvin’s. He would have abhorred the idea that man’s life should become a means for economic ends. But while his thinking on economic matters was the traditional one, his emphasis on the nothingness of the individual was in contrast and paved the way for a development in which man not only was to obey secular authorities but had to subordinate his life to the ends of economic achievements.” [Escape from Freedom. p. 83-84]
Jung has a great term that explains exactly what Fromm is talking about here. The term is "inner personality". By "inner personality," Jung does not mean staying outwardly quiet when we may be angry. That is simply the choice of our ego. "Inner personality," for Jung, refers to a part of us far beneath the ego, which is most visible in dreams, but which also colors our conscious perceptions and feelings.

Jung describes inner personality as:

"those vague, dim stirrings, feelings, thoughts and sensations which flow in on us not from conscious experience, but well up like a disturbing, inhibiting, or at times helpful, influence from the dark inner depths, from the background and underground vaults of consciousness, and constitute in their totality our perception of unconscious life" [Psychological Types, pg. 466]

Historically, dialogue with the inner personality has been called "visions" or "revelation from God." In many Native American groups, members would go on vision quests to spur an inner dialogue. Western religion has a long history of respect for inner dialogue also, through those who experience a revelation from God.

What Fromm is trying to say here is that Western Protestantism carries a repressive attitude towards our inner personalities. We no longer look to our dreams to guide our social life. We reject the idea that important insights can be expressed through the symbolism of dreams. We fail to notice our inner responses to the individuals we meet, and focus only on reciting the appropriate social scripts.

So Puritanism was not so concerned about the repression of sexuality as people today might think. It was more than just that. Victorian Puritanism was about the repression of our inner personalities. It was about complete identification with the socially-assigned career--"My identity is lawyer", "My identity is house-wife", "My business is my identity"--and putting that socially-assigned role ahead of one's freely chosen role within a community. Markets and managers dictate the one. But in community one is able to seek out those friendships that one's inner personality responds the strongest to.

What we never realized and why the 60's failed, is that in trying to correct for Victorian repression, a sexual revolution falls short. Sexuality is only part of the full picture. What is needed is a full-identity revolution--a questioning of whether we should "subordinate our lives to the ends of economic achievements" and a turning inward to establish an inner dialogue and reaffirm our spiritual aims.

But politicians continue to preach about the need for 'creating more jobs' and we, the public, continue to eat it up.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

On evolution and creation

Here are some thoughts about creation myths, and what value they have in light of evolution. I don't get into any technical debates here, but just so you know, there are a few physicists I highly respect, including Richard Feynman and Freeman Dyson, who say there is strong evidence the earth is billions of years old, so that's the viewpoint I'm writing from.

Science and God. Evolution and Creation. How can I believe in both?

Do I believe the story of creation is true?
Look at it this way. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Perhaps reality exists only as we experience it, and the "Let there be light" of Genesis signifies the beginning of our consciousness as much as the creation of the sun and stars.

Search the shadows and side-streets until you find the face of Christ. Remember his words, "as ye have done to the least of these, ye have done it unto me." Look at history through their eyes--the starving, the orphaned, the victims of oppression. What story are we to tell? Which story communicates more truth about their situation? Should we tell of how a billion years ago a fish crawled onto the land? Or should we say to them " 'Let there be light.' We as humans possess the divine light of consciousness to lead us out of the darkness and shadows."

So how can I believe in both? Because society needs both.
The image is where evolution falls short. The language of science is not designed to create symbols as universally meaningful as those in our myths, stories, and religions.

Scientific language will not match religion's ability to create universally meaningful images. It's not designed to. Society cannot live on rationality alone. We need the images of our stories, symbols, and myths.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Darker than Black

This poem was inspired by the "false sky" motif used in Tensai Okamura's anime series Darker Than Black.

“The moon reins over modernity's false sky,

forsaken goddess drifting through light-polluted smog.”

Faith is drowned, weighed down

in advertised promises of technological utopia.

Two students look to the sky,

she asks him what he sees.

He thinks back to childhood, back to his birth

under the gaze of sun and stars.

how the depths of the infinite sky evoke eternity,

the sky, a canvas on which God painted the human soul

He tries to see through child's eyes,

tries to find a star that could be his, theirs.

But the sky is dim, faded from the city lights and smog.

“The moon reins over modernity's false sky"

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Science vs. miracles

I recently started reading about "A Course in Miracles." It is both a book and a community of people. It gets a lot right about what spirituality means AND has managed to become somewhat mainstream! Quite an accomplishment in our age. Here are some thoughts I had about how "A Course in Miracles" bridges the gap between spirituality and scientific literalism:

I believe that science potentially can explain the cause of every event. Keep in mind that science still knows relatively little about our minds, our consciousness, and our cultures.

What are miracles? “Miracles are expressions of love.” Simple. But aren’t miracles supposed to feed the 5,000 and turn water into wine? That’s what orthodox Christianity says, isn’t it? Yes and no.

The traditional, orthodox Christian view is that miracles are events that reveal God. Before the days of widespread scientific literacy, the average farmer had a literal, concrete conception of spirituality. He would see a diseased person get well, a healthy person become diseased, crops mysteriously go bad or do well--all of which, he believed, points to God’s active participation in the world. Science, of course, shows there are unmysterious explanations for crops, disease, and the weather. So as scientific literacy spreads, a literal conception of spirituality necessarily fades.

The thing is the Fathers of modern science believed that science did reinforce a spiritual view of reality. In addition to the simple spirituality of the average farmer, a sizable community in the upper classes of Renaissance Europe believed in a deeper, more sophisticated spirituality beyond the world of crops, disease, and weather. Paracelsus, Tycho Brahe, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Jan van Helmont all studied alchemy as a spiritual discipline. However, the divorce of spirituality and work during the industrial revolution tore the legs out from under Europe’s spiritual tradition. Gradually a literal view of reality, which the scientific community’s emphasis on empiricism and careful precision inescapably favors, took its place at the front of culture’s consciousness.

A scientific, literal view of the world puts into question the role of religion. Churches have two ways to respond--assert the validity of traditional religious symbols or to adapt church theology to the scientific, literal worldview. Many churches adapted by preaching a religious literalism that values the history of religious stories over their spiritual symbolism. That takes us to our present-day conception of miracles as extremely rare, scientifically-implausible occurrences.

But religious stories are meant to endow life with a deep spiritual symbolism. We are to believe out of faith and love, not out of duty or fear. “A Course in Miracles” boldly declares that the world’s literal way of thinking is illusory. There is a greater reality that is spiritual in nature. Our true selves are created in God’s image, which is love.

Now, look back at the orthodox definition of miracle: “miracles are events that reveal God.” Any expression of love is an overcoming of our short-sighted ego, and allows the image of our creator to shine through us.

Science explains a lot about the world, but tells us little about our true, spiritual selves. Miracles are in fact natural, everyday expressions of love, and not the rare, scientifically implausible events that that a literal theology represents them as. God is love, and as the Course says, “everything that comes from love is a miracle.”

A Course in Miracles - Christians who Understand Spirituality!

Just discovered the "A Course in Miracles" community, and I'm super excited about what I've read so far.

Two of the interpretations I like most so far --

One of the most beautiful aspects of A Course in Miracles for me is its re-interpretation of Jesus' crucifixion. Traditionally, the crucifixion has been seen as Jesus' blood sacrifice for our sins, but in the Course, it is an "extreme example" (T-6.I.2:1) of limitless love. In the Course's view, Jesus voluntarily went through the crucifixion to demonstrate that we can love and forgive even when experiencing "the most outrageous assault, as judged by the ego" (T-6.I.9:1). He realized that it is impossible to kill the eternal life that belongs to all of us as Sons of God; therefore, those who attempted to kill him (and those who seemed to betray and abandon him, like Judas and the other disciples) deserved not anger and condemnation, but only love. This is the message of the crucifixion: "Teach only love, for that is what you are" (T-6.I.13:2).
And from
In Course usage, a miracle... removes a block to the awareness of love's presence. It is an expression of love, given freely to the recipient.

I suspect most people think of miracles as rare and outside of normal experience, if they think of them at all. But I agree with the Course. Christian tradition defines miracles as "a natural or supernatural event, in which one sees an act or revelation of God." As the Course points out, any expression of love is an overcoming of our short-sighted ego, and allows the image of our creator to shine through us. So, miracles are natural, everyday occurrences. As the Course says, "everything that comes from love is a miracle."

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Selling Kirby Vacuums Door-to-door and the Thin Line Between Honest Advertising and Scams

Originally published: May 4th 2011, 9:00 PM EST

Kirby is one of the most interesting companies in America. Not always in a good way though.

A few facts about the company- Kirby is headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, and was founded in 1914. It is currently owned by Warren Buffett's conglomerate Berkshire-Hathaway and has always sold its vacuum systems door-to-door only. In fact, in-home demonstrations and word-of-mouth are the only way the company advertises at all. The company sells over 500,000 machines a year worldwide, generating revenue of over $1 billion per year.

I spent a month and a half at the Huntsville office from the end of February to the middle of April, 2011. The money can be quite good if you are able and willing to convince people to pay $1500+ for a vacuum. They make it easier than it sounds, actually.

Like I said, the company is interesting, but not always good interesting. Here's my breakdown:

Good interesting
-The vacuum is actually quite good at capturing dust (see the first link at end of this page)
- Kirby never advertises on TV or online.
- ALL advertising and sales are either face-to-face interaction or occasionally through a phone.
- The job often involves a lot of driving around in vans, and a lot of late hours, so Kirby offices can become a tight-knit group of people.

Bad interesting
- Kirby circulates inspirational/instructional videos that encourage dealers to create unscientific fears in customers and embarrass customers into buying.
- Kirby sells many of its machines through underpaid, new dealers who are told about quick promotion opportunities that often never come up.
- All new dealers sign contracts stating they are independent sales representatives, but many Kirby offices tell them they are on a salary system anyway, so they can threaten to fire them if they don't follow that office's Program. As a result, despite "being on a salary", some new dealers earn less than minimum wage when they struggle to sell the vacuums for high-dollar amounts.

Kirby's business model is different and impressive. My main complaint is the way the company pressures dealers into strict adherence to the Program. The heart of the Program are the “5 musts” of a full-factory demonstration. Two of the “musts”, mattress test and shampoo, make good sense and are designed to give customer enough information to make an informed decision. 2 others, making a friend and the sales contest, are standard sales tools and are to be expected with advertising.
It took me a while to understand the 100+ pads though. 100 is a big number, especially when each pad has to be separately installed. Most people expect the demonstration to take 30-40 minutes when they agree to it, but a full demonstrations that pulls 100 pads takes an hour, and often a lot longer. I usually just did between 30 and 50 of them and felt that was plenty to show the customer what the machine could do, although sometimes I would do around 75.

The strategy admittedly works. Working with Kirby showed me how people respond to social scripts.
If your house looks like a mess from these little, white dirt pads [seen here] from a vacuum demonstration, and then a nicely-dressed manager comes in, you will probably feel embarrassed about how your home looks. In order to stop feeling embarrassed, you are much more likely to purchase an expensive vacuum cleaner from the nicely-dressed manager.

I might have stayed longer if it was just about getting customers to pay top dollar because they liked me. The Program though, encourages dealers to use ill-founded fear and embarrassment when necessary to get the sale. If I was good enough at it and needed the money enough, I don't doubt would have stayed. But even after a month and a half, I wasn't great at it, and the $250 a week I was getting wasn't worth putting up with what I disliked about the Program, although working with the people at my office really helped me learn how to be extraverted, and that alone made my time there worthwhile.


I actually have a lot of respect for Kirby people. It's a high-stress job, that requires you to constantly learn and adapt to new situations. Also, it's easy to believe the spin that Kirby puts on the health issues and also easy to accept the Program as simply part of the job.

What interests me most about the job is the advertising aspect. Most producers outsource advertising to slick PR firms. These firms make carefully-tested, high-budget ads for TV or online that depict whoever owns the target product or service as cool, and whoever does not own it, as out-of-touch. Kirby, however, uses only face-to-face interaction between customers and employees, who are often new to the job. Every firm in a market system must promote an image of the firm that is usually going to exaggerate the firm's strengths. Image is the only thing in determining the market price of a product, a service, or stock.

So does Kirby exaggerate the proof backing its claims of the dangers that dust mites pose to people's health? Does Kirby exaggerate the ease of using the machine and its ability to “protect the value of your couches and chairs”? Yes, but every firm in a market economy exaggerates its image to potential customers. The main difference is that other firms hire advertising agencies to “do the dirty work” of spinning and exaggerating how good its products and services are. Outsourcing the dirty work allows salaried employees to feel good about helping consumers that for whatever reason “have to have” the product or service, while CEOs and shareholders enjoy the bigger share of the profits.

Finally, I realized I would rather not get paid and be able to express myself, than to get paid by through the Kirby Program. Kirby is a high-stress job and it's easy for beginning employees to be used by the Program and come out with bad experiences. I found my time with Kirby interesting and exciting. It's an experience I'm glad to have had, but not something I expect to go back to.

Here are a couple of articles I found that help to explain what Kirby does:

About the actual Kirby vacuum-shampoo system -

experiences with Kirby salespeople -

about dust mites:
what Kirby says – (couldn't find a website that has the document that Kirby gives out to all its offices, but what it says is pretty similar to this one):
what Science says –

about being a salesperson:

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Thoughts on Avoiding Identification with My Job

There is a great veil over our eyes that blinds us from all spiritual matters. The veil causes us to equate our personal freedom with the tyranny of the free-market. The veil hides from us our ability to grow spiritually, and leaves us scrambling to grow our retirement portfolios instead.

The veil originated with the Protestant Work Ethic. In the words of Erich Fromm:
“In making the individual feel worthless and insignificant as far as his own merits are concerned, in making him feel like a powerless tool in the hands of God, [Luther] deprived man of the self-confidence and of the feeling of human dignity which is the premise for any firm stand against oppressing secular authorities. In the course of the historical evolution the results of Luther’s teachings were still more far-reaching. Once the individual had lost his sense of pride and dignity, he was psychologically prepared to lose the feeling which had been characteristic of the medieval thinking, namely, that man, his spiritual salvation, and his spiritual aims were the purpose of life; he was prepared to accept a role in which his life became a means to purposes outside of himself, those of economic productivity and accumulation of capital. Luther’s views on economic problems were typically medieval, still more so than Calvin’s. He would have abhorred the idea that man’s life should become a means for economic ends. But while his thinking on economic matters was the traditional one, his emphasis on the nothingness of the individual was in contrast and paved the way for a development in which man not only was to obey secular authorities but had to subordinate his life to the ends of economic achievements.” [Escape from Freedom. p. 83-84]

With the loss of pride and dignity of spiritual pursuits, the church planted the seeds for its increasing marginality in today's increasingly globalized, media-driven culture.

The puritanical doctrine that humanity is first and foremost sinful tore down centuries worth of spiritual wisdom and allowed the predatory, survival-of-the-fittest nature to come crashing back into the center of the Protestant's consciousness. Hard work shifted from an external pressure that people pursued with specific aims, to an inner compulsion undertaken as a moral duty. The willingness to soberly and determinedly work indicated faith in the Protestant doctrines of the individual's powerlessness and hopelessly sinful state, and so the dutiful believer placed faith instead in the authority of a higher power (the Church, or the political orator, or the infallibility of the free market.) [Fromm, p. 119]

Markets, like anything, have both pluses and minuses. While they efficiently produce and distribute material goods, they unfortunately treat human labor as just another commodity also.

Imagine for a minute that every occupation made roughly an equal amount of money, with the more arduous jobs (coal-mining, jobs involving lots of heavy lifting) and jobs that required extensive training receiving a deserving percentage more (between 10% - 50% perhaps). Presumably people would pick their careers on the basis of natural interest and emotional considerations.

Markets, however, manipulate people into doing otherwise. Markets will pay a worker upwards of 200% - 1000% of the median income to development a specialized skill, often involving intense rational development within a narrow field of knowledge. Anyone making upwards of three, five, or ten times the median income has a strong incentive to permanently identify their career with who they are, whether or not they have a natural interest or emotional fondness for the work. The man who has a strong emotional love for music might instead choose to attend law school. The woman who has a great passion for teaching might instead choose the business profession, because of the market wage. A psychological tension between the person's rational side and emotional side develops, and the role as spouse or parent suffers as a result.

Those who are paid below the median income are predisposed to a different sort of psychological tension. The market culture teaches that a person's social contribution is equal to their market-determined income. The perception within a market society becomes that a person's worth is determined by the material “blessings” they possess. A market culture literally worships money, because money is an indicator of social contribution and thus, moral aptitude. From a Christian perspective, this association of wealth with good morality is the great sin of our society. See Jesus's statement in the Sermon on the Plain:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God... But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” [Luke 6: 20, 24]
Jesus spent much of his ministry preaching love for the scapegoats that society's traditional power structures blame for the society's faults. Jesus replied to such hypocritical scapegoating saying “as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” [Matthew 25:40]

The inability to provide materially in our culture can lead to deep feelings of inferiority and individual powerlessness. The belief in her individual powerlessness leads a citizen to place her hope behind a centralized socialist state, which creates a whole other set of tensions, that I won't go into here.

Markets produce good material outputs, but bad social outputs. As long as the positive material production outweighs the negative psychological tensions, then certainly markets are on the whole a good thing. And if the goal of society is to produce social stability, then maybe markets will provide solutions to these psychological tensions, as in Huxley's Brave New World. However, if the goal of society is to produce a full spiritual life, as the world's great religious traditions aim to do, then the psychological tensions would need to be rooted out at the source, and not covered up by medications or methods of conditioning.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Thoughts about equality

The average American will trade freedom for security in a heartbeat. A desire to maximize our lifespans, even at the expense of liberty, seems to be deeply ingrained in the traditional American psyche. The reason, I think, is that the assurance of long-life helps compensate for a psychological insecurity. Americans want so much to be thought well of. To be liked, to be included, accepted. (Notice this is the language of Facebook.) So we strive to be responsible citizens. We strive to not offend, to keep up appearances, and fulfill the expectations of our peers.

This is all well and good, but the problem is in the vast discordance between those we consider our peers and those who are physically our neighbors. It’s safer for us if our bubble of peers contains only those with a socio-economic or educational background relatively similar to ours. We feel secure there--even if it means ignoring our neighbors or the people living in the communities we pass by everyday on our way to work.

We live in a deeply fractured society. The distribution of wealth is nowhere near equal, but the greater issue is that we are losing our ability to shape our environments. Only 30% of Americans are placed in a position where they can conveniently enact changes within their community. These are the comfortable, well-paying jobs--doctors, engineers, lawyers, upper-management positions. These 30% are seen as “winners”. Another 40% of us believe we’ll be there soon--another year, another 5 years, another 10 years. These still believe and try hard, even under complete awareness of how much they hate current situations. The other 30% are escapists, having sought refuge somewhere else, somewhere other than the American Dream and economic promise of power and privilege.

So what does it take to reclaim our ability to shape our communities? What's the best available approach?

Permaculture is the idea that plants, and especially plants we eat, are an integral part of a sustainable culture, and that by outsourcing the growing of these plants to industrial farms, we are losing a potentially invaluable part of healthy community life. The social bonds that develop through the growing and preparation of food can bring great benefits to the psychological health of those involved. And here’s the great thing: involvement is dependent only on physical location and no other requirements. Urban farming makes it convenient for us to treat our literal neighbors as peers--to burst that bubble of distant but socio-economically similar acquaintances--and to reap the improved self-confidence and increased emotional support that comes from increased face-to-face interactions with those around us.